Author Archives: Zachary S. Sapienza

Travis-sham-mockery of the presidential debates

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As I watched the three presidential debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, one word continually came to mind: travis-sham-mockery.

I know what you’re are thinking – Travis-sham-mockery is not a word. Technically you’re correct. It is, after all, not recognized by Merriam-Webster, Cambridge Dictionary, or even the game of Scrabble. And despite this refusal by the lords of the English lexicon to give it their stamp of approval, this only tells half the story.

The history behind this delightful idiom is revealed through a simple Google search. Its etymology is actually tied to the history of the presidential debates, albeit in a less than traditional way.  The term can be traced back to Miller Lite’s “President of Beers” commercial – a parody on the 2004 presidential debates.

In the commercial, Miller Lite debates Budweiser over which company really is the “King of Beers.” Naturally, Budweiser is represented by a Clydesdale Horse while Miller Lite is represented by comedian Bob Odenkirk. During Odenkirk’s opening speech, he is interrupted several times by the moderating panel until he frustratingly spits out, “It’s a travesty and a sham and a mockery. It’s a travis-sham-mockery!”

Assuming we can even call the verbal sparring between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump during the debates a true “debate,” then I think “travis-sham-mockery” is the perfect metaphor for what we watched.

It’s a travesty

It’s a travesty when presidential debates are more entertaining than educational. While many in the media pointed the finger at Donald Trump for the obnoxious tone set during the debates, I contend the format of the debates themselves also is responsible for the spectacle the world just witnessed.

Part of the problem rests with the moderators. Having them fire questions at the candidates makes it more of a media interview than an actual presidential debate. When compared with collegiate policy debate rounds, there are no moderators asking questions, but only a policy resolution which one side must affirm and the other negate. Questions can only be asked during cross-examination which the debaters conduct themselves.

Although credit needs to be given to the moderators for attempting the impossible task of keeping Trump in line, it also must be noted they overstepped their boundaries at times. From a debate perspective, moderators should never argue with a candidate regarding an answer. They are neither judge nor arbitrator of the debate. Instead, their primary role is to ensure the debate runs smoothly.

Even if moderators disagree with the answer given or think the response does not answer the question posed, they still need to remain neutral at all times. Anything less can jeopardize the impartiality of the debate. It is up to the other candidate to point out the flaws in their opponent’s answer or when their opponent attempts to skirt a question – not the role of moderators.

It’s a sham

Another problem with the debates are the short time-limits imposed on each speech. Two-minute speeches do not allow for any significant analysis of policy, but rather encourage “headline” debating, emotional appeals and claims without warrants. Candidates are often asked to explain complex and controversial issues in a short amount of time, and the end result is almost always a dumbing down of their answer.

Of course Trump might be the exception. Trump’s entire campaign was run on unwarranted claims. During the debates, he actually benefitted from the short time-limits of each question. It allowed him to once again make grand claims without evidence, relentlessly attack Clinton and talk in circles instead of answering the questions poised to him.

Longer speeches help separate wheat from the chaff. Give Clinton 10 minutes to explain her tax plan in its entirety and you would get a fairly detailed and thorough explanation of its inner-workings, its feasibility and its potential advantages. Give Trump the same 10 minutes and you have a potential disaster waiting to happen.

To put this in perspective, each of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates lasted three hours. Each speaker also had significantly more time to develop his position with the first speaker getting a one-hour opening address and the second speaker getting one hour and a half to reply.

Can you imagine Donald Trump with an hour long opening address? Neither could I. The better question would be: How many times could Trump hang himself in an hour-long address?

It’s a mockery

Calling the presidential “debates” debates is a mockery of forensics. It belittles every high school and collegiate debate coach, many of whom have spent their lives advancing the craft. It tells the world the United States is more interested in live theatre than in meaningful dialogue. This point is driven home by Trump when he holds a press conference minutes before the second debate to introduce four women – three alleged victims of former President Bill Clinton’s past indiscretions and the fourth, a victim in a rape case that Hillary defended years previously.

These are not the actions of either a debater or a president to be. These are the actions of a desperate candidate willing to do whatever is necessary to win, even if it means turning the presidential debates into reality-television to do so. Should anyone really be surprised with these Apprentice-like tactics? Trump simply wagged the dog.

And therein, lies the problem. If a candidate can make a mockery out of the debates, then isn’t it time to change the format of the debates? Intelligence Square U.S., an organization that holds public debates, has petitioned to change the current format to the more traditional Oxford format – Two sides, one topic, with minimal moderation. In doing so, they say it would lead to overall better debates that would help to clarify the similarities and differences between candidates.

“This format would quickly reveal how well the candidates think on their feet, how deeply they know their subject, how well they understand the trade-offs, and how persuasive they are without the teleprompters” write Robert Rosenkranz and John Donvan.

After watching the travis-sham-mockery known as the 2016 presidential debates, it is clear that the world needs to start debating the quality and future direction of presidential debates. Let’s hope these public debates go better than did the actual presidential debates.

If the Internet is not the answer, what is?

Book: The Internet is Not the Answer

Author: Andrew Keen

Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press, New York City

277 pages, $25

Communication scholars over the last decade have been unabashed in their claims of the Internet’s potential to transform society through its unique capacity to digitize, store and transmit mass amounts of information as well as its potential for the creation of user-generated content. And although both scholars and the public at large generally agree the Internet has been a good thing for the progression of the human race, Andrew Keen, an entrepreneur and columnist for CNN, vehemently disagrees.

In The Internet Is Not the Answer he argues that the Internet is creating a two-tier caste system, eroding middle-class jobs for the sake of profit. Or, as he writes in the preface, “Rather than promoting economic fairness, it is a central reason for the growing gulf between rich and poor and the hollowing out of the middle class. Rather than making us wealthier, the distributed capitalism of the new networked economy is making most of us poorer.”

While Keen’s argument is brazen, it nevertheless deserves consideration. After all, if the Internet is responsible for causing more societal harm than good, the public should stand up and take note. The keyword though is “if,” considering Keen has the daunting task of backing up his controversial stance with sound evidence and reasoning. Recognizing the scope of this challenge, Atlantic Monthly Press, the publisher, provided Keen with 277 pages to defend his position.

Keen’s writing style is frantic and the logic of the book follows suit. Relying on broad strokes to paint reality and combine distinct concepts, Keen covers an astonishing amount of ground including everything from Amazon’s and Google’s destructive tendencies on society to the demise of the music industry and Kodak. Keen’s fondness for brevity leaves little time for a thorough exploration between the ideas being presented and often forces him to rely too much on anecdotal evidence to support his claims. This can be problematic when discussing complex and abstract issues such as the economy.

The larger the claim being made by the author, logically it follows then, the greater the expectation by the audience for sound reasoning and evidence to support it. Unfortunately, this is where Keen ultimately fails, as he simply cannot meet the claim that the book’s title suggests. Keen’s penchant for brevity leaves too many factors completely unaccounted for in his frantic race to tie every economic problem to the Internet. Any fair and impartial assessment should also consider factors such as globalization, capital flight, tax havens, regional and international trade agreements, tariffs, and trade imbalances, as well as numerous financial considerations such as currency devaluation or U.S. foreign debt. Unfortunately, Keen does not address such factors.

While the book does not live up to its lofty goals of proving the Internet is responsible for most of society’s economic problems, it nevertheless should not be automatically dismissed. For example, Keen’s account of Amazon’s business practices is thought-provoking and should cause readers to question their loyalty to the company. In that regard, readers more interested in gaining an overall better picture of how many of today’s top Internet companies operate will likely enjoy this book. Those more interested in its economic considerations should take a pass. In the end, The Internet Is Not the Answer demonstrates that while Keen is a talented writer and is asking many of the right questions, he is not an economist, nor does he have the necessary answers.